Monday 24 September 2012

Movie Review: THE AVENGERS (2012)

Monday 24 September 2012
directed by Joss Whedon
written by Zak Penn & Joss Whedon (based on characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)
starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard & Samuel L. Jackson

Marvel's The Avengers (aka The Avengers, aka Avengers Assemble) cruised into the record books this summer, becoming the third highest-grossing movie of all time after Avatar and Titanic. Marvel Studios' expensive gamble of making a handful of standalone superhero movies with the intention of bringing everyone together as a super-group, clearly paid off. It's amusing to remember that 2008's Iron Man, the vanguard success that started the ball rolling, wasn't even considered a top-tier comic-book character by Joe Public at the time; and amusing to consider Marvel's struggled most adapting their most recognisable character after Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk.

The man tasked with landing Marvel's four-year plan safely is geek god Joss Whedon—of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly fame and Alien Resurrection notoriety. Luckily, Whedon's background writing for ensembles of sassy women and snarky men, with dialogue laced with one-liners and geeky references, is exactly what's required when handling a gargantuan project like The Avengers. (Which, given the aggregate time and energy spent prepping it, probably would have been considered a flop if it hadn't broken the $1bn ceiling.)

This movie was always in safe hands from a fan's perspective, and Whedon's enough of a showman to give casual moviegoers their fix of jokes, fights, CGI, stunts, and a finale that puts Transformers, Armageddon and Independence Day in a blender. (That could be Randy Quaid in Iron Man's suit delivering a missile up a mid-air alien orifice, right?) Whedon also seems to appreciate the work of Gerry Anderson—as this movie's Helicarrier is surely in homage to Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase. (He effectively updated Anderson's Joe 90 series as Dollhouse a few years ago, too.) This is an unusual position to be in for Whedon—as the world's his oyster post-Avengers, and he's already agreed to create a TV series based on S.H.I.E.L.D—but this movie is easily the most anonymous piece of work he's ever put out. Tony Stark's quips may sound Whedon-y, but it's become difficult to remember who inspired who.

The plot, which is startlingly thin when you get down to it, has Asgardian villain Loki (Thor's Tom Hiddleston) returning to Earth to steal powerful cube-shaped energy source "The Tesseract" (believed lost at the end of Captain America). After destroying Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) S.H.I.E.L.D base and brainwashing various operatives, including super-archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Loki makes plans to summon an unstoppable alien army through a portal to enslave humanity. Obviously, Loki underestimated the determination of ragtag heroes like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) in his advanced mechanical suit, Earth-loving estranged brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), patriotic super-soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), leather-clad assassin Natalia Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), and not-so-jolly green giant The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

The actors are great, but undoubtedly it's Downey Jr who gets to shine the most as the irrepressible Stark, but Ruffalo does impressive work with a role that Eric Bana and Edward Norton struggled with. As other critics have mentioned, it does seem to help that Banner doesn't have to shoulder the weight of an entire movie, which has ironically proven too much for the strongman in the past. The Hulk himself gets many of the best moments, certainly in terms of physical comedy. For what it's worth, Evans is equally as good as he was headlining the somewhat underrated Captain America, Hemsworth is marginally less impressive as Thor this time out, Johansson manages to hold her own against personalities who are significantly more fun, Jackson does what he's been doing intermittently for years as one-eyed Nick Fury, and Hiddleston again proves to be one of cinema's most entertaining boo-hiss villains. The only real disappointment is Renner as Hawkeye, who spends too much time as a brainwashed zombie, and predictably struggles to convince modern audiences that a crack shot with a bow-and-arrow is of any goddamn use against an armoured alien horde.

The Avengers is a perfectly attuned theme park ride of a blockbuster (best seen as large and loud as possible), with so much unrelenting spectacle it threatens to become numbing. That is doesn't is perhaps Whedon's greatest success, as the Marvel characters still shine greater than flying aircraft carriers and mammoth alien centipedes. The downside of there being so much crammed into this movie is that some subtleties are lost, and the character development is fairly blunt. There are also moments where subtext becomes text, like the scene where Loki is equated to Adolf Hitler when he forces a crowd of Germans to kneel at his presence.

There isn't much going on in The Avengers' head, even compared to each character's individual preambles... but as a triumphant fist-pump of a viewing experience, it brings all the action, humour, pace, and spectacle people expect from movies of this size and scale. I just hope the sequel (currently scheduled for 2015) will deliver more story over set-pieces, as the novelty of this huge undertaking will inevitably dim.

Marvel Studios; $220m (budget)